COLLINSWORTH: GOODBY TO ‘CRACK OF NOON CLUB’

MIAMI — This is a story about a star who is now a substitute, a party animal who now gets up early, a playboy who is now engaged. In other words, this is a story about growing up, something Cris Collinsworth never thought he’d be good at.

“You should see me now, I’m like the old man on the team,” he says, shrugging his lean — and nearly 30 year-old — shoulders. “I get my kicks vicariously these days. I advise the younger players what lines to use on women. Like ‘This one used to work for me. Try it.’ “

He laughs. “They do OK, too.”

How could they miss? I don’t think football coaches ever let a guy play his position simply because they like him so much. But if it ever happened, it would happen with Cris Collinsworth. Here is a modern-day Huck Finn, a fun-lover, one of the ya-hoo guys, yet a good, decent fellow, the sort of man you’d accompany to a seedy place like Tijiuana because 1) you know you’d have a great time and 2) you know he’d come back for you if you got lost.

“What’s the biggest difference between this Super Bowl in Miami and the first one you played back in Detroit?” he is asked.

“Well, the wind-chill factor here is 75 degrees,” he says.

Once upon a time — in that first Super Bowl back in 1982 — Cris Collinsworth was the go-to guy on the Cincinnati Bengals. Want a clutch catch? Go to Collinsworth. Lanky and strong, with the 6-foot-5 frame of a middle-distance runner, he was the ideal target with the ideal temperament.

But times change and so does the game. Receivers have grown a step faster, defensive backs an inch or two bigger, and Collinsworth has surrendered just a little to Father Time. Injuries have caught him. The healing process takes longer. So as we head into Super Bowl XXIII this Sunday, he is still Cincinnati’s go-to guy — but only after they go to Eddie Brown and Tim McGee, the starters.

“Hey,” Collinsworth says, with that stringy hair and aw- shucks look, as he stands before a throng of reporters inside Joe Robbie Stadium, “I look at those guys and I see they’re such incredible athletes, how can I be bitter? I figure as soon as I get out of their way, they can really cut loose.”

Now. Remember. We are not talking about a career benchwarmer here. Collinsworth has been an All-Pro three times, and averaged over 60 catches a year his first six seasons. Many considered him one of the best in the game.

And yet, he has always had a flare for, well . . . adapting. A charter member of what he once called “The Crack of Noon Club,” Collinsworth learned to get up early a few years ago when he decided to attend law school — during football season. Rise at 7 a.m., in class at 8, at practice by 11, study at night. Crack of noon, huh?

Then, an avowed bachelor, he got caught recently by a former Kentucky cheerleader named Holly van Kemper. They are engaged. “I have to watch what I say now,” he admits, laughing, “anytime, anywhere.”

And this season, faced with his limited playing time, the one-time
“Casanova Cris” volunteered for special teams, kickoff duty. His job was to contain the guy returning the kick. Dive, baby. Hit ’em hard. I don’t know of too many receivers who would volunteer for kickoff duty.

Then again, I don’t know too many people like Collinsworth.

Here’s what sticks with me from that first Super Bowl,” he says (a game the Bengals lost to the 49ers, 26-21). “I go to golf tournaments now and (49er defensive back) Ronnie Lott is there, and he’s wearing that Super Bowl ring and here I got my puny little AFC championship ring. Well, I feel like just taking it off and hiding it. Nobody want to see it. They all wanna see a Super Bowl ring. That’s why I gotta get one.”‘

He smiles. He says he’s glad that the Bengals will play San Francisco again this time. Nice revenge factor. “I was watching their championship game against Chicago last Sunday and I was yelling ‘Come on San Francisco! Come on San Francisco!’ Then, after a while, like their first three touchdowns, I began to yell ‘Come on Chicago! Come on Chicago!’ I mean, those guys were looking too good.”

Sunday, there is another crack at a Super Bowl ring. And Collinsworth will not take the opportunity lightly; he says he figures this is his last shot.

If there is any justice, then Cris Collinsworth — the only football player I know who says “I used to have a beautiful body. What happened to it?” — will get his moment in Super Bowl XXIII.

After all, You may not be able to go to Collinsworth for every pass anymore, but humor, perspective, humility and even maturity — well, you can go to him for just about anything else. CUTLINE Cris Collinsworth pulls one in.

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